Before COVID-19, the sporting world was characterised by a globalised and cyclical sporting calendar, with broadcast, commercial and matchday the three core financial pillars of its existence. While relentless, this calendar is also fragile, and the Pandemic has thrown it into disarray. With sports returning, the terrain has changed, and robust research is required to understand how. In the second part of our fan insights trilogy, we analyse sports fan perspectives to offer insights and guidance on how they expect sport to adapt, to understand how the sporting world will thrive again.
Fans are open to watching sport behind closed doors, but they want it to be accessible
Sofas will replace stands, and TV remotes will replace tickets, as many sports rights holders focus on getting sport up and running behind closed doors for unfinished seasons and beyond. A global spotlight is on the Bundesliga and UFC, who have pioneered the format, with the Premier League, Formula One, Royal Ascot and the PGA following close behind, and other including Premiership Rugby and ECB in the planning stages. Despite the lack of crowds, 71% of fans will not be deterred from watching sport behind closed doors on TV or online, helped by many having now seen it in action. Competitiveness, uncertainty of outcome and feats of sporting excellence are other elements that make sport, sport, and these remain very much alive behind-closed doors.
Growing openness to behind closed doors fixtures comes at a time when the format is also in its infancy. Virtual crowds and pre-recorded crowd noises (trialled by the Bundesliga) are all efforts to close the gap to sport as we knew it. However, sports rights holders should not just look at how to replace the atmosphere created by crowds, as this is likely to be unachievable, but also at how the at-home viewer experience can be enhanced. Wide-ranging commentary and punditry choices, referee mics and 5G automated score updates are just some potential avenues. However, what is imperative to sports fans first and foremost, is access.
74% of our Sports Fan Panel think it’s imperative that sport behind closed doors is available to watch as widely as possible. The Premier League has moved in the right direction, relocating 4 fixtures to the BBC for the first time ever, and also 4 to Amazon Prime, which will be free-to-air. With the Championship and potentially League One to resume, EFL’s iFollow, and also Formula One’s F1 TV, spearhead the rise of OTT platforms for sport, and a movement towards increased global accessibility – albeit usually behind a paywall. Other sports rights holders should review their digital offering, with it presenting opportunities to understand audience data in a more comprehensive way, and to engage fans in a highly personalised manner.
Fans are more anxious to attend live sport and need to feel safe before returning
With reliance on sources of revenue weighted differently on a sport to sport basis, getting live sport on the screen may be the overriding priority for some, but not for others. Many sports organisations will be very keen to get bottoms on seats to get revenue streams flowing again once lockdown ceases. However, a fan-led focus will need to be adopted to realise this. Sports should aim to remedy reattendance anxiety, which has increased by 27% in the month since our April 2020 survey, as fans’ knowledge of COVID-19 transmission improves. Growing anxiety also explains why the number of fans planning to reattend events as soon as they can has decreased by 19%, just in the past month.
Despite this, 41% of fans are still positive about supporting their beloved teams in stadia as soon as lockdown lifts – and the rest can doubtless be won over. With fan anxieties a roadblock to reattendance, clubs and event organisers can facilitate fans’ return to stadium gates, by tackling specific fears highlighted in research. Global survey data shows that regular disinfection is most important to sports fans when visiting public spaces, while adherence to social distancing measures and provision of hand sanitizer are also desired: return to stadium plans should incorporate these. Measures such as these will also need to be visible to fans as lockdown begins to lift, to quell fear of the unknown. As agreed by our Industry panel last month, strategising should begin now.
Sports that are quick to resume can tap into new audiences on a global scale
Excluding the Bundesliga, individual and non-contact sports will experience a quicker and/or smoother return to the screen. Mixed martial arts, snooker and horse-racing evidence this, with all three leading sports staging a comeback in recent weeks, albeit in a trimmed format. This will give them access to part of lost broadcast revenue at an earlier stage, while also avoiding the organisational headache of returning teams to training and eventually matchday. Sports that cross the fan viewership line first can even grow their audiences at this time, underlined by 56% of sports fans being more likely to watch sports that they wouldn’t normally watch as it makes a staggered return.
Having pivoted swiftly, Formula E and Formula One have been able to tap into this thirst for live sport like few other sports – throughout lockdown. Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge and Formula One’s Virtual Grand Prix highlight recognition of a growing esports market. Tapping into it should help bridge a new generation into the sport and unlock a revenue stream that can withstand all weathers, unlike broadcast, commercial and matchday. The buzz caused by Extreme E at what is dubbed a ‘crisis point’ for sport highlights its potential for growth, and that of the motorsport industry in general, particularly as crowds are not a core component of the sport for the at-home motorsport viewer.